Left to right: Judge Frank Shea, Franz Zibilich (now a Criminal District Court Judge) and Judge Rudolph Becker at Mandina's in the late 1980s. (Photo provided by Franz Zibilich)

In part 1, The Section G Project looked back at Frank Shea’s career on the criminal court bench. This week we’re focusing on the experiences of lawyers who practiced in front of him — or in some cases, were prevented from practicing in front of him.

This oral history is pieced together from interviews of lawyers who practiced in front of Frank Shea, and a judge whose tenure overlapped with Shea’s in the 1990s. All the interviews were conducted individually, with the exception of Franz Zibilich and Kevin Boshea, who were interviewed together in the chambers of Section L of the Criminal District Court, where Zibilich now presides. 

Mike Riehlmann, Defense Attorney. Prosecutor in Section G, 1985-1986: It was unlike any courtroom I’d ever been in before. Things moved very fast. Judge Shea took the bench early. He was very impatient. He was a real character. My dad and he had grown up in the same neighborhood,1 and my dad said, “He’s not a bad fellow, but he can be a little rough around the edges.” So I was kind of prepared for it.

Calvin Johnson, Retired Criminal District Court Judge, 1990-2008: It was like a disease, or a cloud, in his court. You felt it when you walked in the door. You felt it, OK? You felt this overburdening weight that would come over you when you walked through this man’s door. Especially when you were a person of color, OK? When you walked in that door, you felt it. 

Kevin Boshea, Defense Attorney. Prosecutor in Section G,  1980-1985: Frank Shea was a reincarnation of — or actually, identical to — my father. To the point that when my father met Frank Shea they were like two long lost brothers. And every time Frank Shea would yell at me or whatever, it was similar to Burt Boshea — “Go out and cut the grass, damn it! Get your ass up and cut the grass!” They loved each other. I developed very much of an affinity for the man, to the point where I spent five years with him. He made lawyers. He built lawyers. He created lawyers.

Franz Zibilich, Judge, Section L. Indigent Defender in Section G, 1985-1986: My father2 had gone to Loyola with Judge Shea. There was a gentleman named Numa Bertel,3 who was in charge of the indigent defender’s office, and he and my dad were close friends. And they had probably, as of 1985, had quit drinking alcohol for many, many years. And when I passed the bar and decided I wanted to go work in the indigent defender’s office, I think those guys started drinking again because they sent me to Frank Shea. And it was really not where you would send somebody for their baptism. 

“It was like a disease, or a cloud, in his court. You felt it when you walked in the door.”
-Calvin Johnson

Retired Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Boshea: You wanted to go into the cauldron? You went into Section G. And you were in the cauldron. And you knew you were in the cauldron. But, by the same token, the lessons that I’ve learned … I’ve now practiced law in 37 Louisiana parishes. Nothing phases me. Judge is giving you five minutes to get ready? Been there, done that. Judge is making you go to trial without your evidence? Been there, done that. Judge is giving you five minutes? Been there, done that. Why? Because I graduated from the Frank Shea academy of panicked trial work, or whatever you want to call it.

Gary Wainwright, Defense Attorney: He was a very skinny, frail-looking, gray man. And by gray I mean, his skin tone was a light gray. Back then, in the Criminal District Court, smoking was allowed in the building. In Judge Shea’s courtroom, on each one of the council tables was one of those giant ashtrays from the ‘50s. He had a giant ashtray on the bench. And he had affixed to the fourteen jurors chairs in his courtroom airliner ashtrays. So it wasn’t unusual when you opened the door to the courtroom, it was like worse than a barroom. 

Riehlmann: It was almost like a poker game atmosphere, while you were just going through the docket. 

‘He gave everyone nicknames’

Zibilich: He gave everyone nicknames. I was the Half-Jew, Half-Yugoslavian Whooping Crane Motherfucker. The judge whose number I just gave you [Frank Marullo]4 was Italian, his name was Il Duce Motherfucker. Judge Becker,5 who we just talked about, was that Uptown Blue Blood Motherfucker. There was a lawyer who practiced in his court whose name was Chick Foret, a real short guy, does a lot of media stuff now, and because he was so small and looked like a jockey his name was Eddie Arcaro Motherfucker. Jim McKay was a judge, and is now the Chief Judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, he had kind of a baby face, he was that Baby Huey Motherfucker. Everybody had a name that ended in motherfucker. And if it didn’t end in motherfucker, it meant he didn’t like you.   

Johnson: In terms of his behavior in court, he was as nasty, as insulting, he was obviously racist — he wasn’t alone, but he was obviously racist — he was sexist, obviously sexist,6 he had such a disdain for people who came into that room. Which was his.

Riehlmann: He was very bright, he knew the rules of evidence, knew the law very well, but was very caustic.

Zibilich: Frank Shea understood the sixth amendment to the constitution. And if he offered you x-y-z number of years if you pled guilty, chances were if you went to trial you weren’t going to get punished for that. That hasn’t always been the case with others. That’s certainly not the law in the federal system.7

If Judge Shea heard something in the trial that offended him, he would certainly give you more than what he offered you. But he wouldn’t punish you for exercising your right. He was really attuned, and believed in the constitution.

Nick Trenticosta, Post-Conviction Attorney: He’s the worst thing a judge could be. He could care less about fairness. He could care less about upholding the constitution. He was running a fast train to Angola every day. It was just, give people unfair trials and get them out of here. You know, in some ways he’s evil? Or evil behavior.

Boshea: He created the indigent defender program.8 He created the public defender’s office. And people will say this about Frank Shea, and he pulled a gun out in court, and he did this and he did that, and all this other stuff, but nobody wants to talk about that other side of him. And that other side of him was very much cognizant of the defendant’s rights. 

‘You two want to fight the Civil War all over again?’

Riehlmann: I never heard him use any racist terms. I don’t think he was particularly sympathetic to the plight of the poor black kid. But I don’t think he was particularly sympathetic to the plight of any of the defendants who came before him.

Johnson: In 1982, I became the director of the Loyola Law Clinic.9 The court would appoint the Loyola Law Clinic to represent people. There were a few judges who indiscriminately would appoint the clinic to represent people in their particular court. There were some judges who only appointed the clinic to represent white people. I am going to say that to you three times. There were some judges who only appointed Loyola Law Clinic to represent white defendants in their court. The black guy, who runs the clinic, with his little white law students, only represented in some courts in that building, white people. They never appointed us to represent any black people, OK? But then there was one judge who never appointed us at all.10 Frank Shea. 

Trenticosta: You know, I can’t— I’m prejudiced against white people, because I think most white people are racist. And they don’t know it. I believe Shea was a racist, but I can’t tell you that. I can’t give you an instance.

Riehlmann: One thing I do have to say about Judge Shea is that he was very sensitive to Batson.11 He hated when he perceived someone was using race as a basis for their challenges. He would sometimes call Franz and I up and say, “You two want to fight the civil war all over again?” That was his little catch phrase on that. So he was very mindful of that. 

‘It’s not so hot when it comes too quickly too’

Zibilich: I mean if the book, or the story, was about the building, there are at least three judges that come to my mind, that went too fast. The guy who is the DA now,12 was a judge for many many years, and he’d appoint you to a case and expect you to try the case the day he appointed me. He’d say, “You don’t need to worry, just read the police report, I’ve subpoenaed your witnesses.” That wouldn’t work today. Today, in the best practices world, it just wouldn’t work. 

I’m not saying what those guys did was bad, it was a different era. You didn’t see everybody with long rap sheets. So they weren’t getting punished for going to trial and losing. Nowadays, the risk/reward factor, it’s a gulf. If the guy doesn’t take the five years I just gave a guy, he’s looking at 20 to life if he goes to trial and loses. And you can’t shove a trial down those sort of individuals face as fast as it used to be because of the big giant gulf in terms of risk/reward. But Frank Shea, he had a sense about himself. In today’s world, I’d say he went too fast. They’d say Judge [Alvin] Oser went too fast. They’d say Judge [Dennis] Waldron went too fast. They’d say Judge [Leon] Cannizzarro went way too fast. 

Boshea:  I’m not saying running at bullet train speed at all times is necessarily beneficial to anyone. That would be wrong. However, I also don’t believe that operating at a snail’s pace and not approaching it from the correct kind of work ethic is positive either. 

Riehlmann: Compared to other judges, he didn’t let defense attorneys question potential jurors for as long as other judges did. And I don’t think it was very fair. Although I find it tedious now, 35 years into the game I hate listening to jury selection because it is tedious. His job was just to put up with the tedium, and let the questions be asked. And I don’t think he did that. I didn’t think it was fair the way he cut voir dire down in comparison to other judges. 

Boshea: But the one thing that Frank Shea really taught you how to do was to pick a jury. And why did he teach you how to pick a jury? “Gentleman, you understand the rules, there are no repetitions.” That means, I get one shot at this entire venire, to present every issue involved. Now, he’ll let you present every issue involved. One time. You forget to mention something, you’re SOL. Period. How does that translate into my present practice? I sit there and know how to pick juries. Voir dire to me is the most important element of my presentation. I win or lose a case on voir dire. Why? Because I learned it from Frank Shea.

Zibilch: He was predominantly with the state, but if he thought the state was wrong he would shove it up their ass sideways and criss-crossed worse than he would do to the defense bar. 

Johnson: You can care, and how you act and behave you can see that, you know, I really care about what happens in this room, I care about what happens with people. I care about it. I care about it because I say things, I ask questions, I give answers, and based on that I make decisions. Because I care about the ultimateness of what happens. The only thing Frank Shea cared about was the number of trials he had, and puttin’ MFs in jail. And putting them in jail for the longest possible extent. That’s all he cared about.

Riehlmann: His biggest problem was that he just moved too fast. They say justice delayed is justice denied. Well it’s not so hot when it comes too quickly too.

Boshea: But not fast in a way that deprived anybody of due process, or anything like that. What he expected out of lawyers was efficiency. What he wouldn’t take out of lawyers is laziness, or incompetence, or lack of preparation. He was not able to handle those issues. 

John Reed, Defense Attorney: You had an underfunded public defender’s office, you had a terribly underfunded public defender’s office and you had a system that worked more happily processing the cases than being what it was supposed to be. The judges liked that.  There were certainly many judges that were happy with defense attorneys who made their jobs shorter and simpler. They were with those who did not. And thus it was a happy relationship with a judge if the public defender, and the often underpaid undernourished defense attorney, made things short and sweet and quick and easy and moved everything along. “Let’s move along.” The mantra of the Criminal District Court judge was “Move along.”  I’ve got my feet up and I’m reminiscing. 

‘Babe! Look at this!’

Zibilich: It was a different world back then. If you go back to the ‘70s, you really only need to go back to the early ‘80s, there were 12 white men sitting over here. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, and obviously before, these were all white men. Entirely different culture. They could bring you in their chambers and talk however they wanted to talk until the advent of women lawyers. That’s when it changed. It certainly changed with Frank Shea. I mean he could peel off MFs with the best of them. But with the exception of one gal who happens to be a judge now, he wouldn’t utter a curse word in front of women. That was just his upbringing. 

Robert Glass, Defense Attorney: One time I was in Judge Shea’s court room, and they were in the middle of a trial. I was watching, and the Judge was reading something on the bench. His minute clerk, whose name was Babe,13 was busy working. Shea turned, pulled out what looked like the centerfold of a Playboy magazine. He spread it out, and said ‘Babe! Look at this!’”

Shea was so sexist, so disrespectful, and so demeaning, to this female lawyer, who just happened to be my wife.
-Gary Wainwright

Gary Wainwright, pictured in the early 1990s. (Photo provided by Wainwright.)

Wainwright: I was married to my second wife, God rest her soul, she’s dead now. But, she was really, a nice looking woman, Caroline Norton was her name. Chris [a nickname] was a nice-looking woman, she was a lawyer, tall, kept her hair kind of red — not like super red — but you would say she was a redhead. And so, because it required cross-examining this teenage woman, who was purportedly victim of this kidnapping, and rape, and all this stuff, I brought Chris, who was a very successful civil trial lawyer. She met my client and said, “OK, Gary, I’ll help you with this case.” It was in front of Shea. 

Shea was so sexist, so disrespectful, and so demeaning, to this female lawyer, who just happened to be my wife. I wasn’t happy with what he was doing … I did my job. Chris did her job. The kid is found not guilty, deservedly so. 

Every month, at the end of the month, they have the jurors fill out questionnaires about their experience in the criminal district court. And several of the jurors, who happened to participate in that trial, wrote very extensive detailed complaints about Frank Shea’s treatment of Caroline Norton, this redheaded woman lawyer. I never got to read ‘em. 

One day I get this message, right? It’s a few weeks after the trial. I get this message: “Judge Shea wants to see you, Gary.” Which was always terrifying. For me. Any judge wants to see me, I’m terrified. Usually means I’ve done something to make them angry. I’m known for that, just because I stand up. So I get this message, Judge Shea wants to see you in the courthouse. So I go back, and Shea is standing by his desk. And he is as mad as I’ve ever seen him. And he’s holding the juror forms, where the people have reported him for his sexist behavior. And he’s saying, “Read these! Read these, Wainwright! Read these! You brought that woman lawyer up in here, and look what you caused to happen!” And I’m reading em, and I’m reading em, and I said to him: “These complaints are about your behavior! They’re not about my behavior, and they’re not about anything my wife did. So, you wanna blame this on somebody? Go find yourself a mirror, and look in it, Judge Shea! You behaved in such an outrageous manner, that three weeks later people took the time to file written complaints against you about your behavior. How can you blame that on me?” “Well you brought her in here.” “Ok, ok. Thank you judge.”  And that was the end of that conversation. 

‘He made you a lawyer’

Zibilich: The truth of the matter is the guy was gruff. The truth of the matter is he had the sort of sailor mouth that would not work today. His courtroom demeanor would not be considered appropriate today. But as Kevin said before, he was a little bit like a drill sergeant. We all respected him. You either loved him or you didn’t. But he made you a lawyer. 

“We all respected him. You either loved him or you didn’t. But he made you a lawyer.”
—Franz Zibilich

Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich (Nicholas Chrastil/The Lens)

Boshea:  What have I gotten out of it as a result? Now I run as a solo practitioner a practice where I basically prepare 10 cases to 12 cases in 4 different parishes a week for trial, plus write three appeals. Why? Because I have an S on my chest? No. Because I learned the work skills from Frank Shea. I learned how to organize my time. I learned how to prepare and how to manage multiple situations, by use of simple devices such as a telephone.

Johnson: OK. OK. Well what the fuck about the people who were there? With all respect to prepared lawyers, kiss my ass. You’re supposed to be representing people. This is about people who come into the building. This is about people who are coming there hoping that their life is not dramatically changed as a result. Prepared lawyers? Kiss my ass. I mean, that’s just, I’m sorry. And what I’m saying to you, I’ll say to their fucking face. Kiss my ass. That’s the most ridiculous damn thing I’ve ever heard said.

Zibilich: 80 percent of the way I manage my docket came from him.

Boshea: 80 percent of my work habits came from him.

Riehlmann: He could be a judge now. But he’d have to have a totally different personality. 

  1. Mid-City, not far from the Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse.
  2. Robert Zibilich, a long-time New Orleans defense attorney, died in 1986.
  3. Head of the Orleans Indigent Defender Program for 30 years starting in 1974.
  4. Marullo served as judge in Section D of the criminal court from 1974-2015.
  5. Rudolph Becker III, former judge in Section E of Criminal District Court and 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.
  6. Laurie White, now a judge in Section A, was a prosecutor in Section G in the late ‘80s. “When I was the prosecutor, and I used to call it sentenced to that courtroom to prosecute, Judge Shea didn’t let women prosecutors prosecute there, but he apparently liked me and let me stay in there. He used to say that he’d run them off after the first couple of days. So Judge Shea was probably the most hostile judge I ever appeared in front of.” Recently, she recalled that Shea told her he only allowed her in his courtroom because she had “a nice ass and a dirty mouth.” She declined a full interview.
  7. Handing out harsher sentences to defendants who decide to go to trial, known as a “trial penalty,” has long been criticized by federal defense attorneys. A recent report by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyer’s notes that “there is ample evidence that federal criminal defendants are being coerced to plead guilty because the penalty for exercising their constitutional rights is simply too high to risk.”
  8. The Orleans Indigent Defender Program was created in 1971 to replace the privately administered Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Division. During his 1972 year reelection campaign, Shea touted his work helping to create the program.
  9. Johnson later clarified that he was the head of the criminal division of the law clinic.
  10. In 1995, the Tulane Law Clinic ran into the same problem with Shea, who barred them from representing clients in his court.  “We’ve had a problem with Shea for years that we don’t have in any other court that I’m aware of,” said Bette Cole, the director of the law clinic at the time. “He’s never been friendly to the clinic, not out of any ideological bias, but because he likes everything to be familiar and then he doesn’t have to work that hard.”
  11. Batson v. Kentucky, a 1986 United States Supreme Court Case that ruled a juror cannot be excluded from the jury based solely on race.
  12. Leon Cannizzaro
  13. Babe Gendusa

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...